I want to return to the question of how quickly the Christian church grew in the first four centuries. This will be part of chapter 6 of my book on the Triumph of Christianity. If you want a fuller background to what I say in this post and the one to follow, see my earlier musings on May 16 of this year, at https://ehrmanblog.org/how-many-christians-were-there/
In two posts I’m going to lay out what I think we can say both about how many people became Christian and at approximately what rate. For those of you who are math whizzes, I would love for you to check my calculations to see if I’m making mistakes. For everyone I would love to hear your comments on my claims and hypotheses. This is a draft of that part of my chapter, with part two to come tomorrow. As you will see, I begin in medias res.
As a result of these considerations, I want to suggest some minor tweaks in the way we understand the rate of Christian growth. In doing so I want to emphasize that there could never have been anything like a steady rate. Populations ebb and flow for all sorts of factors; for the growth of the Christian church there are all sorts of imponderables. How quickly were Christians dying in relation to the rest of the population? Did they have more births? Were persecutions occasionally cutting into their numbers? Or did the bravery of martyrs actually increase their numbers?
Some scholars, including Stark, have tried to take such matters into consideration, but in fact probably none of them is probably significant. Christians died and were born at about the rate of others — despite elite Christian authors claiming that Christians never practiced abortion or infanticide. These claims have been shown to be more propagandistic than factual. And it was extremely difficult in antiquity to grow a population on the basis of natural processes: at best, according to the most convincing findings, populations could increase 1% a year by more births than deaths. Nor, as we have seen, did improved Christian health care probably lead to better mortality rates. Moreover, not very many people were actually martyred to decrease the Christian population significantly (as we will see in the next chapter), and there is almost no evidence that watching martyrdoms led large numbers to join the faith.
And so for our purposes we will not take into account special features of Christianity that one might unreflectively suppose had led to a difference. I will base my calculations on two fixed numbers. …
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